With their own partner,To the beat. Your partner, Strikingly beautiful,A flower in her hair,Moves to your leadWith gentle hand A slight nudge Moves youAvoiding calamity, Together you slideAround others, Through others, Never really knowingIs it the music? Dance classes? The connection? Something moves you across the floorAnd life transcends Into the something Greater that its parts. If you’ve ever danced on a ballroom floorYou have the ability to understand How there is a God.
“Do you believe there is a God Mr. David?”
“Do you ever question whether there is a God?”
“Then why do you chose to believe rather than to not believe?”
“Because no matter how hard I try, I can never let go of the question.”FIRST MOVEMENT
The Church in India was here before the Church in India came. It is the kind of stuff you learn about in school, but never really believe until you encounter it for real. There are 22 rites in the Catholic Church. Different traditions, different prayers, different readings, all professing the same Faith, and the same Communion. I visited a parish of the Byzantine Rite in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This is one of the rites. India has two of these rites. The Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara rites (in addition to the Latin).
At the time of the Apostles, St. Thomas migrated all the way to India and began a community of Christians. These communities thrived under what became known as the Syrian Churches, with bishops and authority proceeding from Persia rather than that of Greece or Rome. In the early stages, the Syrian church was far greater in its number of converts and influence, and far more missionary in its approach, than the Church in the West. The difference was that the Roman government eventually changed, allowing Christianity, and changed Christianity as a part of it. Meanwhile, in the east, Islam began to dominate the political environment, nearly eliminating the Syrian Christians.
When the Portuguese came to India, they found the Christian communities associated with St. Thomas. The Portuguese were vicious to their Christian brothers and sisters, demanding that they conform to type of Christianity stemming from Rome. Some from the St. Thomas communities adapted, while being remaining rooted in the St. Thomas tradition. These are the Syro-Malabar Catholics to this day. Others sought solace from the Chalcedon bishops. The Chalcedon liturgy was different than the Syrian liturgy, but those who followed Chalcedon felt more at home than following the Roman way of doing things. This gave birth to the Syro-Malankara tradition. Eventually, as the Latin Rite spread through Asia, especially through the work of St. Francis Xavier, the Syro-Malankara tradition came back into communion with Rome, while maintaining their Indian/Chalcedon traditions.
Fr. Francis Kanichikattil, CMI, is one of the foremost experts in the Syro-Malabar tradition. He teaches and lives at Dharmaram College. I had the privilege of meeting him after attending the Mass at the College Chapel (which was Mass in the Syro-Malabar Rite, celebrated in English) He helped me to understand the signs and symbols that are different in the Syro-Malabar tradition, and why this rite of the Church is important.
The Liturgy of the Syro-Malabar Rite is similar in its basic format to a Latin liturgy, but is more focused on praising God’s glory rather than seeking God’s mercy and pardon. The priest does not face the congregation during the Eucharistic Prayer, but instead faces the same direction as the people. The priest, the deacons, and the people all share in the Eucharistic prayer. All of these differences sort of give humor to the fact that this particular liturgy also included songs from the liturgical group known as the St. Louis Jesuits, played on an accordion.
Fr. Francis explained to me how this tradition reinforces the Indian understanding that God is an experience that is really present in the immediate. God is among the things of the Earth, and the division of God into transcendent and immanent, does not even apply. God is undivided-being-experience, which if far less complicated than the West has made God to be.
If you have downloaded Google Earth onto your computer, you can view the pictorial of the College chapel by clicking here. There are some important signs and symbols that I will refer to that you may want to look at both in the chapel and around the campus. Use the Places tab in your Google Earth browser to see the other pictures, especially St. Tomas parish and the campus.
The first and most important is the symbol that deserves explanation is the cross emanating from the lotus flower. This is the sign of the St. Thomas Christian communities. The lotus flower is the sign of awakening and enlightenment. The lotus only blooms with the dawning of the sun, and its blossom is a surprise, even to itself, as its petals strike-release the folded countenance, brilliant. The Christ miracle is experience-response of mystery. Therefore the Christ miracle resonates with the lotus epiphany, the rising of the sun, and unveiling of all wisdom and beauty. You will notice combinations of these symbols -sun, lotus, and cross - throughout all the artifacts of the Syro-Malabar Rite.
You will also notice an important mosaic in the church complete with swastika, menorah, and dove. This is not a commentary on the Jewish Holocaust, nor approval of an anti-Semitic stance. It is an expression of doctrine, stemming from the Second Vatican Council’s document Nostrae Atate, in which the Church believes that there is wisdom and truth to be found, in partial form, in the World’s Religions. In the mosaic, the artist expresses this doctrine by inferring that the Holy Spirit has been manifest in each of the religious traditions.SECOND MOVEMENT
The early Christians did not recall merely the death of Jesus in their early symbols. The earliest symbols we have from Christian communities show the cross with flowers as a sign of resurrection. The tree of death had become the tree of life, a paradox. These signs and symbols were the basis of the Eastern churches until the missionary spirit of the Western Church began to spread across the world. Then the Syro-Malabar rite found itself in a stage of adaptation, balancing its own liturgical and theological tradition, the influence of Rome, and the influence of India.
What we know about the early St. Thomas community is that the signs and symbols were different than the other religions (Hinduism and Islam), but the buildings were not. All the temples looked largely the same, square with a seven level Gopuram on top. The symbol of the lotus was important, but what was found inside the lotus, the primary symbol of the religious tradition, changed according to the religion. It was a customary during the early years of the St. Thomas communities, to be inclusive of other religions. The Hindu’s brought their religious artifacts to the Christian temple for the Christian feasts, and the Christians brought their artifacts to the Hindu temple for the Hindu religious feasts. The same with Muslims when they arrived in India.
The burning topic in theology today is pluralism. What do Christians do now that Islam is thriving in Europe? Throughout the world, religions once separated by oceans, now find they are separated by alleys. The phenomenon is causing some to panic, but the reality is that inclusive plurality is a part of history. It is nothing new. The St. Thomas community shows us that.
Fr. Varhese Pathikulangara lay on a bed in his chamber as I talked to him. The darkened shadows across his face were counterpoint to the enlightenment of his being. He is another expert on Syro-Malabar liturgy. With a smirk on my face, I couldn’t help but ask him, “Do you really believe St. Thomas came to India?”
“Of course.” He replies. “Do you really believe that St. Peter went to Rome? It is tradition to believe such things and we have no other proof than that. One of the ways we authenticate that tradition is that there is no other community that claims St. Thomas came to them.”
For those keeping score: Fr Pathikulangara – 1 / David – 0
Fr. Pathikulangara is a staunch defender of the Syrian tradition of the Church. The Syrian tradition has survived more brutal and long-standing persecution than the churches farther West (Roman and Greek). Some of the persecution actually came from the Western Church. All in all, the Syrian Churches have maintained a spirituality that he feels the West sometimes lacks. He readily admits that there is a fullness to Catholicism that is absent in other religions, but what the other religions lack, is not something that can be proven through logic, as the West tries to do. The Syro-Malabar Church is a church about relationship with God, through the Christ experience.
And life lived in this relationship is how Fr. Pathikulangara envisions the face of evangelization in the Church. The very life of a Christian is the best witness there can be to the Gospel. A Christian should not seek to oppress, or confine another human being with his/her thoughts or words. The Church should seek to encourage in others the fullness of abundant life, through undivided focus on friendship with God, through Christ.
Fr. Pathikulangara also corrected me on a small detail about the Eucharistic Prayer. It is the Syrian tradition that, by tradition, did not use the words of institution during the Eucharistic Prayer. The Syrian anaphora is the basis for the Fourth Eucharistic prayer in the Latin Rite today. The Syrian’s never had to bother with St. Thomas Aquinas, so there was never a belief that the words of institution were the causation of the Eucharist becoming the Eucharist. If your parish does not ring bells during the Eucharistic Prayer any more, you can thank the theologians of the Syrian tradition. Also, if this last paragraph didn’t make any sense to you, don’t worry, it is really just for my notes later on.THIRD MOVEMENT
Plotinus is my favorite philosopher. He marries the insights of Plato, with a sort of philosophical mysticism that does absolutely nothing productive. It’s fantastic! I wish I could be as shamelessly useless as he is. His principal argument focuses on “The One.” The One is “being.” Since the One is, multiplicity is possible. Everything that has being, participates in oneness, therefore it participates in the One. The One is pure “Thought”, or, in Plutonic language, pure “Form”.
In the end, what does the One do? It thinks creating a sort of Trinitarian formula. Thought thinks thought, and that is how everything that is, comes to be. It is a very strong argument for the central problem of classical philosophy, “How can there be both one and many” – both unity and diversity. Plotinus is able to argue that it is the unity which causes the diversity. The mistake that is made is when unity becomes uniformity, and when the diversity focuses in on itself, and becomes threatened by other diversities. This is not only a central problem of classical philosophy, it is also the central problem of religion today. How can there be both one and many, avatars or incarnations of, and covenants with God?
It is good to know that if it wasn’t for Plotinus, there never would have been St. Augustine. And if there never was St. Augustine, Christians in the West would spend a lot more time feeling good about themselves. (If you don’t get that last joke, believe me its very funny to those of us who get it. If you didn’t even get that there was a joke, just move on.) St. Augustine restated Plotinus in Christian language. The One, that is God, is really Love. What does love do? It expands, in a sort of Trinitarian formula. Love loves the beloved. This is how Augustine described the Trinity.
I never really got his name, but while visiting the parish of St. Thomas on the campus of Dharamaram college, wouldn’t you know that I would run into the Assistant Pastor, who also teaches philosophy at Dharamaram college. With my kind of luck, wouldn’t you know that he teaches… Plotinus.
We had a few things to talk about. Such as, “How the greatest gift that India ever gave to the world was nothing.” Seriously, the East has taught the philosophical concept of zero, which has made a host of mathematical possibilities ascertainable, including binary code which is the basis of all digital media. The only reason you are able to read this blog is because of billions of ones and zeros are flying across cyberspace as you read.
Meditation is concentration on another person as they are, their being. For a few moments I had the opportunity to concentrate on this young priest over a glass of coconut juice. I’ll never forget the talk we had, because he gave me a very clear warning. Be certain. Things are going to get rough for following this path. Have faith. Trust the source of your being above all.CODA
I was led to three Christian “gurus” today. They were a trinity of wisdom, teasing my knowledge, my understanding, and my being. Together we danced, as if the music was playing, and we could not help but rush to the dance floor, nor understand how we were dancing without calamity. I should never forget what brought me here. “What brought you here is who you are. This is the indwelling of God, the master that is most certain, and most certainly within you.
“The power of your voice will always come from the power of your silence.”
So I sat in the garden.
Dancing in the stillness of the silent sunlight.
A flower was open.